What are genital warts?

Genital warts are growths or bumps on the penis, vagina, vulva (vaginal lips), cervix (the opening between the vagina and the womb), rectum, or groin. Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection, or STI, which means that they are caught by having sex with an infected person. Genital warts are also called "condyloma."

After a person has been infected, it may take one to three months for warts to appear. Some people who have been infected never get warts. If you think you have been infected, you should be tested, even if you cannot see any warts.

What do genital warts look like?

Genital warts look like small pink or red growths in or around the sex organs. The warts may look similar to small parts of a cauliflower, or may be very tiny and difficult to see. They often appear in clusters of three or four, and may grow and spread rapidly. They are usually not painful, although they may cause mild pain, bleeding, and itching.

How does a person get genital warts?

Genital warts spread by direct, skin-to-skin contact with the warts of an infected person. Contact most often occurs during sexual activity that involves the penis, vagina, anus, or mouth.

How can I know if I have genital warts?

If you think that you have genital warts, or any STI, visit your health care provider. He or she can examine you and perform tests, if necessary, to see if you have an STI. The following tests for genital warts are performed:


Your health care provider:

  • Examines visible growths to see if they look like genital warts
  • Examines the genitalia and rectum
  • Takes a sample of fluid to test for gonorrhea and chlamydia
  • Takes a sample of blood to test for syphilis
  • Takes a sample of blood to test for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS)


Your health care provider:

  • Examines visible growths to see if they look like genital warts
  • Performs a complete pelvic exam
  • Examines the rectum
  • Takes a sample of fluid to test for gonorrhea and chlamydia
  • Takes a sample of blood to test for syphilis
  • Takes a sample of blood to test for HIV
  • May perform a Pap smear and testing for the human papilloma (HPV) virus (especially if you are overdue)

Tests for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis are taken because STIs often occur together and share similar symptoms. Sometimes patients are referred to a gynecologist, urologist, or dermatologist for further testing and biopsy.

What causes genital warts?

Genital warts are caused by a number of different viruses. These viruses are among a group of more than 60 viruses that are called HPV. HPV can cause genital infections other than genital warts. HPV also causes warts on the hands and feet, though these viruses are not as easily spread.

Why are Pap smears and biopsies performed?

The Pap smear looks for changes in the cervix that could be caused by an HPV infection. It also looks for cervical cancer. With early treatment, cancer of the cervix can be cured. There is an association between HPV infection and cervical cancer, so women with HPV must be watched carefully for cancer. The types of HPV that cause genital warts tend to be different than the types of HPV that cause cancer. However, because patients can carry more than one type of HPV infection, it is important to stay on track with the cervical cancer screening recommendations and appointments recommended by your doctor.

A tissue biopsy may be needed to take a close look at tissue cells under a microscope. This is sometimes required if the diagnosis of the wart is uncertain, or if abnormal cells have been identified on a Pap smear. The test looks for cells that show early signs of genital cancers.

How are genital warts treated?

You cannot treat genital warts yourself. If you think you have them, don't delay getting examined and treated. The longer genital warts go untreated, the more difficult they are to cure. With the help of a health care provider, genital warts are removed with the following methods:

  • Chemicals that dissolve the warts (applied by the health care provider or by the patient)
  • Laser lights or electric current
  • Freezing with a special device
  • Injections of medicine into the wart
  • Surgery (for warts that are large or difficult to treat)

Genital warts can come back, so you may need to return to the doctor for more treatment.

What should I do while I have the warts?

  • Keep the area as dry as possible.
  • Wear all-cotton underwear. Man-made fabrics can irritate the area and trap moisture.

How can I prevent genital warts?

  • Don't have sex with someone who has genital warts or is being treated for genital warts.
  • Use latex condoms, even if you are using another form of birth control.
  • Get vaccinated with the HPV vaccine. One vaccine, called Gardasil, is approved for girls and women ages 9 to 26 and protects against the development of cervical cancer. It is best to get the shot before the start of sexual activity. The vaccine consists of a series of three shots, with shot two coming 2 months after the first, and shot three coming 6 months after the first. If you already have HPV, the vaccine does not treat or cure but can still help protect against other types of HPV infections (other than those that cause cervical cancer; for example, the vaccine can help protect against the HPV that causes genital warts).

Where can I learn more?

CDC Hotline: 1.800.232.4636


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 12/12/2014...#4209